Beanie Feldstein On How Watching Saorsie Ronan Work Prepared Her For Her Latest Role
'How To Build A Girl' marks the 'Booksmart' actress' first starring, solo role.
After making a splash in 2019 with supporting roles in Lady Bird and Booksmart — two projects that celebrated women's growth and humor both behind and in front of the camera — 26-year-old Beanie Feldstein has returned with her first solo starring role in How To Build A Girl, the film adaptation of Caitlin Moran's best-selling novel by the same name. In How To Build A Girl, 16-year-old Johanna Morrigan (Feldstein) transforms herself from a regular teenage girl in '90s Wolverhampton, England into Dolly Wilde, a successful rock critic with a sharp pen game and an appetite for parties, fame, and glamour. As she climbs the career ladder ever higher, Morrigan finds herself falling deeper into a version of herself she never intended to become.
NYLON chatted with Feldstein ahead of the coming-of-age film's May 8 digital release to discuss her first solo starring role, what she learned from Saorsie Ronan, and why the most important part of acting isn't acting at all.
Hi Beanie! What first drew you to the role of Johanna?
Beanie Feldstein: There was so much that made me want to beg to play Johanna, basically. I remember reading the script for the first time and saying to my agent, "I've never been more intimidated or enthralled with anything I've ever read. I need to try." More than any other role I've ever had the privilege of playing, it felt so unattainable, just because of the Britishness of it, for lack of a better word. I always understand when roles go to other people, because there's so many incredibly talented people in this world. I truly never sweat it. I'm always thrilled for that person, but for this one, I understood it even more so if they wanted to go for someone British. I think that was initially their instinct, but they eventually opened up to looking at people from other countries.
When I read the script, I felt this jolt of connection to it. There was this spark, which I really... as someone who was born in 1993, not a teenager in 1993, and grew up in Los Angeles, not Wolverhampton in England, our starting points are so different. But Johanna is such an optimistic, genuinely positive character, very intrinsically. That is just naturally who she is in her soul at her core. I am very much the same way. It doesn't mean that both of us in very different ways in our lives don't go through hardships or go through very, very painful moments, but I still kind of just naturally lead with buoyancy, and optimism, and positivity.
Where do you think that optimism comes from?
I genuinely think I was born with it. One of my absolute favorite lines I've ever gotten to say was in Lady Bird, which Greta writes my character, Julie, to say, "Some people just aren't built happy." It was such an important, beautiful line. I think it was in that moment of doing that scene that I reflected on myself, and I was like, "I am built happy, and I feel so grateful for that." It is sort of just this intrinsic nature, but I'm also someone that believes in the power of society, and your family, and nurture as well. My mom is an incredibly effervescent, optimistic, glass half full person. My dad is a very grounded, thoughtful person. So I think with the two of them guiding me through life, as parents do, I was really lucky to be brought up in a house with a lot of spirit.
This was your first starring, solo role. Was that also part of what made you feel a bit intimidated?
I think it made me feel more intimidated. I came directly from filming Booksmart, I think we wrapped on a Monday, and I was in England by Saturday, so I really went directly from one to the other. Throughout all my work, not just professional work, but also growing up doing musical theater, I'm very used to being a part of a big community and sharing the stage or scenes on film with other people. I was very intimidated because not only is Johanna on every single page of the script — that's rare for any movie to have one character on every page — but also, of course, there was the regional accent of Wolverhampton. Then in addition to all of those things, much of what Johanna does in the story is so brazen and so brave. I was really excited and exhilarated, but also, of course, a little bit intimidated to go on that journey with her.
How did you master the accent?
I visited Wolverhampton for about three weeks, and I worked in a shop in Wolverhampton for three weeks. Coky, our amazing director, made me verbally pledge to her that from the second I walked through the door to the end of my shift, I had to speak in the accent the entire time. Whether it was talking to customers or talking to my coworkers or ordering lunch on my lunch break, I had to stay in the accent. I had never done anything as an actor so immersive before in that way.
What kind of shop was it?
It was honestly a feminist utopia in Wolverhampton. It's called The Shop in the Square. I'm still on the employee Facebook group, so I get a lot of updates on the store, and it is, I think, about 20 to 25 local female artists that sell their work in a cooperative. There's several different types of things in the store, but it's pretty much gift shop like jewelry, cards, sort of Wolverhampton-specific beautiful pieces. It was such a joy. Those women really helped shape Johanna. I mean they opened up to me about their lives and called me on my accent and were really, I mean, just so incredibly beyond giving in opening their livelihood, their store, and their artistry, and opening their doors to a girl from California who wanted to do a Wolverhampton accent. I'm so grateful, genuinely so grateful to the women of that store, and for the creative team for creating that opportunity for me, and carving out the time to do so because it's so rare in indie films to have the luxury of time. And they really invested in time for me to learn the accent properly.
What a rare opportunity! You've worked with a number of female directors — Greta Gerwig for Lady Bird, Olivia Wilde for Booksmart, and now Coky Giedroyc on How To Build A Girl. Given that female directors on feature films are unfortunately also relatively rare, has that been a conscious decision on your part?
In my very short working life, I have been lucky to work with mostly female directors — not exclusively female directors, but definitely, I would say more than the average person working in the industry. I feel so beyond privileged to be able to say that. It's a sign that maybe this industry is shifting in the right direction. I still think we have so much further to go, not just for female directors, but for directors of all sexualities, and genders, and race, and religion, and everything. But I'm so lucky to have the working life that I've had, and the fact that I've worked with that many female directors is really meaningful to me.
The last film I shot was with a male director who is beyond brilliant, and giving and kind in leadership, and thoughtful, and everything you could want out of a director. It's not that I only want to work with female directors, but I do feel like every story that I want to be a part of, I want to play a character that is deeply complex and given every opportunity to be messed up or thoughtful or rowdy or funny or sad or whatever the adjective would be as a male character. And for there to be space for every female character to be as fleshed out and given just as much space too in the film as any male character. I'm excited that we're at a time where those are being given more readily to female directors than they used to be.
I've also gotten to work with a lot of directorial debuts, which I think is so important, because people can't be a second or third-time director until they get to be a first-time director. I look at Greta with Little Women and Oliva, I can't wait to see what she creates next. I can't believe that I get to say I was in both of their first films.
A big question, but what experiences from Booksmart and Lady Bird prepared you for How To Build A Girl, whether experiences you had on set or with other actors?
There are so many. In specifically relating it to how it helped me on How To Build A Girl, I think the biggest thing would be watching Saoirsie [Ronan] in Lady Bird. She's younger than me, but I look up to her so much. When we were filming, I watched her navigate reading a film with such grace, empathy, generosity, humor, and joy. Then Kaitlyn [Dever] and I got to create that energy that we had both witnessed other people create on set together. I just look to both of those women as examples for how I want to act on set and lead a film for the first time by myself.
It sounds like those experiences were really formative for you.
The reason I love working in film is that it is so collaborative. It's a communal experience. I really wanted everyone I worked with, whether cast or crew, to remember me as someone who was respectful and kind. The acting of it or thinking, 'am I good at what I do', doesn't matter to me as much as being remembered as a good person. This film does not exist without every other person that worked on it. No one person is more important than anyone else. That was really an energy I wanted to take with me that I think I learned from watching Kaitlyn and Saoirse.
That's such an amazing sentiment to be bringing to each set, and I'm sure it's really appreciated.
There's so many talented people in this industry and in this world that I know and love, and many thousands that I don't. So I'm always so deeply grateful to get an opportunity. All I know is that I will work hard and be kind, and the rest is sort of just subjective, I think.
The film is about a (very) young writer working in music criticism. There's often been a contentious relationship between critics and artists. Did working on this film change the way you view that relationship?
I think it was something that I reflected on more since wrapping the film. The film really is a beautiful exploration of who is allowed to be critical and who is not — or maybe specifically who is forced to be critical at times when it's not their instinct. I think that really is who Johanna is. That is not her instinct, as you can tell at the beginning of the film from her interview with John Kite — to be critical is not her natural instinct. Her natural instinct is much more on the fangirl side of things. But in order to make it in this male-dominated industry as a 16-year-old girl, not even an adult woman, but a teenage girl, she does what she needs to survive, and to support her family, and do well at her job.
She literally says, "If I want to get ahead, I've got to get a hate," which I think is such a brilliant line. Then there's another line in the film in the voiceover that I love that is like, "Once you crossed over to the dark side, it isn't dark at all." This male-dominated industry that she was in pushed her into a way of thinking and a way of treating people that isn't her natural instinct. She did it to survive, and then she kind of gets lost in it. It's the boys, and the music, and the partying and the clubs. It's kind of this diva side of her that comes out. I think it's interesting to watch someone who's instincts are not to be critical put that on.
I think looking at art critically and analytically is an important part of our society, but I do think that to be critical just for its own sake is something that maybe we don't need as much of in our lives. I think How To Build A Girl does celebrate thoughtful and intense creative writing that is analytical, but it also kind of, I think, asks us to think a little more carefully. I went about that question in a roundabout way, but I think you know what I'm saying.
I love the roundabout answers because we hear your thought process.
I love what Caitlin [Moran] always says, which is that when you put on armor, eventually, you can't grow. I think that is truly the lesson of How To Build A Girl, that it is completely and utterly okay to try on different armor. We all do it. It's also a way of getting through life, but, eventually, you can't grow anymore. I think How To Build A Girl celebrates the phases or the moments of trying on different sides of yourself or protective defense mechanisms. Eventually, it asks the audience to be kind to themselves, and maybe try lifting it off, and see where you can grow from there.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How To Build A Girl is available now on Amazon Prime.